Just as the Balkans conflict is making its messy and uneasy transition from war to peacekeeping in Kosovo, Amnesty International released its annual report this morning with its executive director, William F. Schulz, underlining the compelling lesson to be drawn: Humanitarian tragedies happen when world leaders "allow perpetrators to commit human rights atrocities with impunity."

In an interview yesterday, Schulz said his group is trying to promote and work toward "the creation of international structures of accountability in the form of an international criminal court and consistent policies" on human rights. Violations are increasing because there are "no consistent mechanisms or policies. There is no permanent international criminal court yet," he said. "We have seen a massive military intervention in Kosovo, while the world has done nothing about massive violations in the Sudan and Sierra Leone. We continue to coddle China, then crack down on Burma and Cuba. There is no consistency in U.S. human rights policy or the response of the international community. That leads to thugs and tyrants believing they can get away with murder."

Countries that appear stable but are rife with human rights violations could suffer turmoil and instability, Schulz said, citing China. "In China, it is not only the political dissent that we think about when we think about Tiananmen Square. There are hundreds of labor riots, demonstrations and actions going on in the inland provinces," he said. "Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, who are Muslims, feel they have been very seriously discriminated against. China has executed 33 people among them this year." According to the Amnesty report, about 200,000 people were imprisoned without trial there and 3,500 were executed in China last year, mostly for petty crimes like stealing bicycles.

The two most glaring examples of human rights violations this year are Sierra Leone, where 1 million people have died and 1.5 million have been internally displaced because of civil strife, and rebels in that West African country have chopped off the arms of innocent noncombatants. In Sudan, at least 1.5 million people have been killed and children have been sold into slavery, yet the United States has done nothing, he said. "These two countries deserve far more attention than they receive," he added, noting also that there are serious violations in Turkey, particularly against the Kurds.

With regard to Israel, Schulz said, Amnesty has been critical of interrogation techniques and "we strongly oppose the law which permits torture. Israel is the only country that has as part of its legal structures permission to commit `moderate physical pressure,' but it often turns out to be far more than moderate pressure -- shaking is the most dramatic example.

"Egypt has a very problematic record in its treatment of prisoners and a lack of protection to religious minorities. The Coptic Christians of Egypt have been subjected to very serious harassment."

Schulz said that when the United States fails to protect human rights at home, its effectiveness as a voice in the defense of human rights around the world is diminished. He said 24 states allow the execution of persons under 18 who commit capital crimes. When the United States ratified the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of speech, religion and the press, it took exception to the provision that outlaws the execution of juveniles. "The point here is that there are only five [other] countries in the world that execute juvenile offenders -- Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia -- so we are not in very good company," Schulz said. "This weakens our hand."

The United States has been pressing China to ratify the covenant. The Chinese government has said it would do so, but notes reservations on freedom of speech and religion. Beijing's refusal to yield to demands for human rights improvements and American business opposition to linking human rights and trade when dealing with China have stymied the rights dialogue. According to a report released this month by the Brookings Institution, Washington and Beijing were in a slim minority of governments opposing the draft treaty for an International Criminal Court last summer. Last month, both countries tried to block a resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, the report said.

To provide a more coherent international structure for addressing violations, Amnesty International USA has called on the Clinton administration to support creation of an International Criminal Court; passage of the Human Rights Information Act, which would establish systems for the United States to release information on human rights violations in other nations; and extradition of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, and delivery of all relevant information concerning his case, to Spain.